I first met Harriet through Twitter–and I was stunned by the evocative, no-nonsense language of her writing. She is what I think of as someone who is in the trenches. She is someone I want to learn from. She is someone who is living it out, and is graciously sharing her prophetic voice with us today. She hails from Ireland, where she is no stranger to conflict–but she has an amazing, visionary view of what social change really means. Read along and find out what I mean.
Since early December 2012 Belfast, Northern Ireland has been torn apart by the most disruptive and sustained violence and protests for over fifteen years. This is a piece I wrote as a sequel to Under My Skin (first published on 6 January 2013) – these two essays had an extraordinary reaction around the world…
What Could and Might Happen Next… (First published 13 January 2013)
We did an art project once that the young people were really proud of, got right into, got their hands and clothes covered in paint but we were told by ‘community leaders’ that we had used the wrong community artists and so the right ‘community artists’ painted out our young people’s work.
We worked really hard on a film project with a young guy playing the starring role, a guy that one of my volunteers had to hold back from punching his sister several times one night for making faces at him, he was so emotional during the filming, it was cathartic, he was so proud of himself and wanted his mum to see it. A few days later the family were told to leave the area because the mum was dating the wrong guy. He was gone, and so was the time and exhaustion that had been put into him over weeks and months.
We took the young people to the Abbey Centre for a shopping outing – they said it was crap, because it wasn’t their own shopping centre. We took them to an ice cream shop and they laughed because all the flavour names were so weird or stupid. We took them to the Silent Valley and they kept asking where the shops were.
The years of my early working life showed me what I had in terms of a stable family background, some education and some skills in stark comparison to others, but it also showed me the assumptions I made, the ignorance I had and the pity I carried that took me somewhere that it wasn’t wanted.
I learned in the Lower Newtownards Road about justice, I learnt that real transformation would only work if some of this strength, privilege, stability and safety was shared and/or given away. I felt then as I feel now, listening to helicopters overhead and driving through scorch marks on the road, that there are not many leaders in that community who understand, share that vision or have an understanding of what that really looks like.
For too long in my view, when violence bubbles and erupts this small corner of the world is forced (by what I am not sure) to turn to its politicians, ex-prisoners and police in positions of leadership who carry a narrative of the past and often have no empathetic insight into the social needs of whole communities to flourish regardless of flag colours.
We will not flourish if we seek to maintain our strength, we will not flourish if we seek to hold our privilege and we will not flourish if we seek to protect our own safety to the detriment of others. We must use our strength, privilege and safety to help others become strong, privileged and safe.
When political and community leaders use the language of persecution, loss, corrosion and trampling when it comes to culture and identity, this will translate as a threat to communities who have been taught to respond to this threat with violence. I found that this was the only dominant language and response passed down, incentivized and sustained by symbol, ritual and fear.
I walked away and signed up to be a foster carer, I couldn’t bear the two hour slots with the unsettled, unknown and chaotic children and young people any more. On the one hand I left something destructive and on the other hand I invited destruction (or the potential for it) into my home and my family. However, I found all those poverty and violence issues were redundant with the small child who needs a regular bedtime, stories read, songs sang, nutritious food, hands held and three layers of clothing. With the teenager who is told to stay in and not walk the streets to see/find friends or the eight year old who needs a blast of fresh air to resolve his ‘ADHD’ problems. Fostering isn’t for everyone, but it’s the perfect fit for us. It is these therapeutic and attaching activities and relationships that I find to be missing in the peace building discussions we are hearing in the media over these past days and weeks, I wince when I hear that all these matters can only be resolved through ‘democracy’ and the ‘political process’. This is a community that struggles to listen, to communicate without getting angry, that is being told it is under threat, that has been taught what to do when threatened, that has experienced not only the trauma of community violence but also the multiple traumas of family breakdown, mental ill health and multi-generational unemployment (to name but a few).
How does this community relate to, let alone engage with ‘democracy’ and the ‘political process’?
I’d like to take the politicians away on a listening course, I’d like to see them sitting in their jeans reading stories to families, supporting couples at domestic violence mediation sessions. I’d like the community leaders and ex-prisoners to do an intensive attachment and loss course, I’d like to put a pin in words like ‘culture’ ‘war’ ‘violence’ ‘flag’ and ‘loyalism’, acknowledging them as a backdrop but have them sit with someone who has a mental illness as they rummage through their one hundred pieces of paper to find their address. I’d like to see teachers, counsellors and social workers being consulted on the ‘peace process’.
For those on the outside, those who are judging, who are angry, who are upset or feeling powerless? The last thing we want is for communities whose violence is on the surface to interpret these questions as an attitude of ‘We are not like you. We are not the problem. We have nothing to learn from you. You’re the problem and you can fix it by being like us.’ What the ‘peaceful’ can and should learn from violence and fires on the streets of Belfast is that where there is poverty and violence then it is a mirror showing us our ugliness as a broader community, if one is hurting amongst us then we all are. In years to come our children and grandchildren will look to us and ask us what we did. It may not be Burma, it may not be India, it may not be the Civil Rights movement in the US but something is making it possible for violence to be prepared and executed on the street a mile from our houses and we are linked into the systems and structures that sustain this possibility.
It’s really isn’t money that will make us flourish here, it is relationships. It really isn’t politics or dare I say democracy that will bring peace here – it is the quiet dignity that should be bestowed on every single human being around us – regardless of flag colour.
What happens next…?
Links to the full pieces here:
What Could And Might Happen Next…:
Harriet Long has lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland for nine years. She spent three years living and working as a youth and community worker in the inner city community of East Belfast, one of the top five most deprived wards in Northern Ireland. A Loyalist (Protestant) community, led by politics loyal to the British crown, policed by both legal and illegal organisations. She now works for a small regional charity supporting victims of crime. She remains closely involved with the community of East Belfast, continues to worship and support the community outreach there, living half a mile up the road. She is a passionate body theologian, writer and blogger and a busy foster carer. She’s also keen on films, china, cake and hikes. She writes here and can be found on twitter here.
To read the rest in the War Photographer series, click here.